A multi-disciplinary team of researchers at the University of Stirling found chronic health conditions are a greater cause for concern than COVID-19 and that older people feel safer from catching COVID-19 in healthcare settings than in other places in the community.
The findings of two reports, which inform a policy briefing launched today, are part of a large study to consider how COVID-19 has impacted the lives of older adults in Scotland.
The reports from the COVID-19 and You: Impact and Recovery Study entitled 'Engagement with health services in Scotland during the Pandemic' and 'Has the pandemic changed older people’s worries about health?', found concerns over chronic health conditions, such as cancer, dementia, heart disease and stroke, exceeded fears about COVID-19 for the over-50s.
Cancer was most concerning with 30% of participants worrying about cancer most frequently, followed by 29% being most fearful of dementia. Just 5% worried about COVID-19 more than other health conditions.
Getting check-ups for these chronic conditions was also flagged as a worry among the group, with a third either very or extremely worried about getting access to healthcare services during the pandemic. The report also points to a potential increase in how often people worry about cancer now compared to before the pandemic.
Older people felt most confident about being safe from catching COVID-19 in health care settings such as GP surgeries, pharmacies, hospitals and dentists.
Trips to the local pharmacy caused the least cause for concern, with 78% of over-50s surveyed feeling completely or fairly safe from catching COVID there, and only 2% not feeling safe at all.
GP surgeries were also deemed to be safe environments, with 73% feeling completely or fairly safe from Covid-19 if they were to attend an appointment there. Indeed, 55% indicated that they were not worried at all about physically visiting the GP in the immediate future. Concerns were mainly focused on having access to GP and NHS services if required.
Around 5% of those surveyed did not feel at all safe at either a GP surgery, hospital or dental appointment.
COVID-19 did not lead this group to cancel or reschedule healthcare appointments – only 4% of those who experienced cancellations and delays indicated this was a result of their fear of getting COVID-19.
Data for the study was collected between October 2021 and January 2022, with 2,687 people surveyed on engagement with healthcare settings.
Associate Professor in Ageing & Public Health at the University of Stirling Dr Elaine Douglas led the work, funded by a £712,000 grant from the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), as part of UK Research and Innovation’s rapid response to COVID-19.
The unique research project called 'The impact of COVID-19 Fear: evidence to inform social, health and economic recovery' was the first of its kind to measure the extent to which concern about COVID-19 impacts older people’s behaviour and responses to a range of social, health and economic issues.
Associate Professor in Ageing & Public Health at the University of Stirling
Despite the pandemic, older people feel confident to attend healthcare appointments when invited, and this group is not put off by fears of contracting COVID-19 – which is particularly important as we head into the winter season.
Dr Elaine Douglas said: “Whatever discussions are underway regarding NHS COVID-19 recovery or NHS reform, we see a pattern of fear related to chronic health conditions over COVID-19 coming to the fore in our findings. Older people are concerned with having access to GP and hospital services and fears of COVID-19 are not deterring them from attending appointments or treatments.
“At the start of the pandemic we saw a drop off in people engaging with healthcare settings, so it is very encouraging to see a renewed confidence in entering these settings to receive the care they need. Despite the pandemic, older people feel confident to attend healthcare appointments when invited, and that this group is not put off by fears of contracting COVID-19 – which is particularly important as we head into the winter season. Hesitancy to attend appointments does not appear to be a barrier to addressing the NHS backlog caused by the impacts of pandemic.
“These findings are important to the NHS and other health services and provide important insights for policy and public health messaging. Older people may be reassured by hearing more about the ways in which plans for recovery from the pandemic will address access to services to manage chronic health conditions.”
The research is part of the Healthy Ageing in Scotland (HAGIS) study, set up by Dr Douglas and economist Professor David Bell, which follows older people over time, collecting data on their health, economic and social circumstances.
Dr Douglas worked alongside Professor Bell on the project, as well as Stirling colleagues: health psychologist, Dr Lesley McGregor and social scientists Dr Tamara Brown, Dr Alan Duggan and Professor Louise McCabe.
Read the COVID-19 and You: Impact and Recovery Study. Engagement with health services in Scotland during the Pandemic Rapid Report.
Read the COVID-19 and You: Impact and Recovery Study. Has the pandemic changed older people’s worries about health? Rapid Report.